NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jacksonville State is picked to win its fourth-consecutive Ohio Valley Conference title, while senior defensive end Darius Jackson is predicted to be the league's Defensive Player of the Year for the second season in a row, as announced at the conference's annual Football Media Day on Monday.
Including Jackson's defensive nod, a conference-best nine Gamecocks received Preseason All-OVC honors. The offensive team features seniors Roc Thomas, Justin Lea and Dylan Cline, while the defensive team is populated by Jackson, Randy Robinson, Siran Neal, Joel McCandless, Marlon Bridges and Reggie Hall.
Jacksonville State garnered 128 points and the league's other 16 first-place votes in the team poll. UT Martin finished second in voting with 107 points and two first-place votes. JSU received 32 more points than third-place Tennessee State and 47 more points than fourth-place Eastern Illinois.
Jackson is predicted to be the OVC's top defensive player for the second-consecutive campaign and is one of nine Gamecocks to receive preseason all-conference recognition. The senior leads a JSU defense that returns eight starters from a unit that ranked fourth nationally in total defense, fifth in rushing defense and seventh in scoring defense.
He was one of the nation's top pass rushers in 2016, leading the OVC and ranking 16th nationally in sacks per game with 0.83. He ended the season with 10 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss, both tops in the league. Through just three seasons in a Gamecock uniform, Jackson has already made his mark in the record books. He holds the school's career records for both sacks (20.5) and tackles for a loss (40.0) with one year of eligibility remaining.
Thomas was a 2016 First Team All-OVC pick, dazzling in his first season at JSU after transferring from Auburn during the summer. Rejoining his former high school coach from Oxford High School in Grass, he fit right into JSU's offense. Thomas ran for 782 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games, finishing second in the OVC with 86.9 rushing yards per game. He also had 16 catches for 173 yards and a score.
Monday's announcement came as no surprise for Lea and Cline, who were two of five JSU starting offensive linemen to receive All-OVC honors in 2016. Lea is a three-time All-OVC tackle, named to the First Team last year, while Cline was a 2016 preseason pick and Second Team tackle. The unit, which featured the same five starters in every game, paved the way for the top offense and the No. 1 rushing offense in the OVC in 2016.
Robinson receives his first preseason mention following his first all-conference award last year. A 6-foot-2 lineman from Lovejoy, Ga., he notched 31 tackles in the middle of JSU's defensive front, including 7.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
McCandless is now a two-time preseason selection in three seasons at Jacksonville State. An OVC All-Newcomer in 2015 in his first season after transferring from Hinds Community College, he earned a spot on the All-OVC First Team as a junior. The six-foot Birmingham native recorded 64 tackles, seven for a loss, while also picking up 1.5 sacks and an interception.
Neal, a 6-foot-1 junior from Eufaula, Ala., earned his first All-OVC honor after moving from safety to the nickel position prior to the 2016 season. He had a breakout season in 2016, making 80 tackles, second on the team, while also intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble. He was second on the team in tackles for a loss with 11.5.
Bridges stormed onto the scene in his first year in a Gamecock uniform, becoming the second Gamecock to win the OVC Freshman of the Year Award in the last three years (Lea in 2014). A 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman from Lanett, Ala., Bridges tied for first in the nation with five forced fumbles and intercepted four passes, the third-most by a freshman in all of the FCS. Bridges made 87 tackles in 12 games in his first collegiate season, tops among all OVC freshmen.
Hall rounds out the Preseason All-OVC mentions for the league's top defense after nabbing his first all-conference honor in 2016. The 6-foot-3 cornerback from Opelika notched 28 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass break ups and returned one pick 88 yards for a score in the fourth quarter of a win at Eastern Kentucky.
The Gamecocks enter the 2017 season having won 24 consecutive league games, the longest active conference winning streak in Division I. Alabama is second on that list with 17-straight SEC wins, while N.C. Central's 15-game MEAC streak is second among FCS schools. JSU is closing in on the OVC record for consecutive conference wins of 26 set by Eastern Kentucky from 1992-95.
The Gamecocks are chasing more history in 2017. A conference title would give JSU its fourth-straight and tie EKU (1981-85) for the most consecutive outright titles in league history.
JSU will report to campus for fall camp on Wednesday and will begin practice for the 2017 season on Thursday. The Gamecocks open against Chattanooga on Aug. 26 in the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff in Montgomery's Cramton Bowl. Kickoff is set for 5:30 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on ESPN.
Tickets to the opener and season tickets for JSU's five home games are available online at www.JSUGamecocksTickets.com.